Wednesday, November 24, 2010
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Clarence Earl Gideon (August 30, 1910 – January 18, 1972) was a poor drifter accused in a Florida state court of felony theft. His case resulted in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, holding that a criminal defendant who cannot afford to hire a lawyer must be provided with a lawyer at no cost.
At Gideon's first trial, he represented himself, and he was convicted. After the Supreme Court ruled that the state had to provide defense counsel for the indigent, Florida retried Gideon. At his second trial, with a lawyer representing him and bringing out for the jury the weaknesses in the prosecution's case, Gideon was acquitted.
After his acquittal, he resumed his previous way of life and married again some time later. He died of cancer in Fort Lauderdale on January 18, 1972, at age 61.
Robert F. Kennedy remarked about the case, "If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court; and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look at the merits in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter; the court did look into his case; he was re-tried with the help of competent defense counsel; found not guilty and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit. And the whole course of legal history has been changed."